Opportunity from Conflict: Smart Engagement in the Energy Policy Debate

The current intense climate and energy debate, not unlike the conflict over health care, has been marked by deep partisan divisions.  Advocates, industry groups and elected officials at every level are waging a battle of words, ads, studies and legislation—and the fight is far from over. 

In the midst of that conflict, lies a tremendous opportunity for companies that can accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy or reduce the cost of controlling greenhouse gas emissions.  The economic stimulus bill passed in early 2009 created a significant pool of resources for companies in this area, but a range of longer-term policies – from cap-and-trade to tax credits to a nationwide Renewable Electricity Standard – are all on the table, and their sponsors and supporters need examples of firms whose technology or employment base can help sell the policy.  Companies who successfully enter the debate stand to raise their profile, improve their reputation—and help craft helpful policies along the way.   

The caustic nature of the climate and energy debate can be a turnoff for companies, which see the possibilities inherent in policy engagement, but are hesitant to enter a field full of political land mines.  Navigating that field requires a clear understanding of how a company’s offering fits into the policy scheme and how best to handle the barriers to successful inclusion in the debate.

In our experience, three barriers in particular confront firms looking to enter the fray:  taking a policy position without alienating economic and political allies; breaking through a debate awash in greenwashing to highlight the real benefits of a product offering; and advocating supportive policies without sounding like your business needs support.  Each of these is a potential stumbling block, but a few common strategies stand out as guideposts.

How to Keep Friends and Influence Policy
The climate and energy policy debate is crisscrossed with battle lines that transcend political party, region, technology and policy solution.  Whether companies provide energy efficient lighting, advanced biofuels or verifiable carbon offsets, everyone has a Congressman, a trade association, friendly competitors and customers—all of these are crucial to reputation and sales.  The need is to locate— or to carve out—the political space that allows everyone to win, or at least to emerge relatively unscathed. 

This is best undertaken with a combination of tools—research, government relations counsel, media relations and advertising—based on a message that bridges political divides and partnerships that unite otherwise opposing interests. 
Particularly in the recent economic environment, the most effective message has been local economic revitalization.  This naturally means job creation, but it is more than that.  There are lots of industries that create jobs, but clean energy jobs have three built-in message (and political) advantages:

•    Clean energy jobs are local jobs.  Windmills and solar panels are most affordable when manufactured close to the spot where they’ll be installed.  Energy efficiency retrofits benefit local construction, electrical and other trades. Innovative companies that base their operations in a state or city breed other local companies in the same industry, building local economies from the ground up.
•    Clean energy jobs are “regular” jobs.  You don’t need a PhD to drive a windmill parts truck and your average scientist can’t install energy-efficient drywall.  Those jobs go to workers with skills in manufacturing, service and similar industries.  It just happens that at the end of the day, the equipment you weld, ship and install also provides pollution-free electricity.
•    Clean energy jobs ought to be American jobs.  Right now, China and Europe are racing to become home to the jobs of the future – and they’re on track to beat the U.S. by enacting policies that create markets for clean energy.

Of course, messaging alone won’t solely do the trick; messengers matter too.  Companies and advocates are well served by joining forces with like-minded, credible allies in the private sector and across disciplines.  Building a well-designed and strategically positioned coalition brings parties to the table and builds support for an issue that otherwise would break across partisan lines. 

Case Study: Food Before Fuel
A good example is the Food Before Fuel campaign.  Congressional support for corn ethanol had fueled a spike in corn prices that was affecting food costs in the grocery store and bottom lines for American food producers.  In 2008, a broad coalition of groups that usually would not have collaborated – environmentalists, meat and poultry trade associations, conservative tax watchdogs and anti-hunger groups – rolled out a message designed to appeal to conservatives and liberals alike: Our fuel policy shouldn’t affect our food prices.  The campaign drew support from a wide range of audiences and changed the ethanol narrative – and the food industry created momentum for its argument, including on Capitol Hill.

That’s not to suggest that there wasn’t opposition to the Food Before Fuel effort – elected officials from corn states and representatives of corn trade groups spoke out actively against the effort.  But this illustrates a sometimes necessary and unavoidable decision that companies also must make: choosing sides when conflict is unavoidable. 

The strategic decision to embrace conflict—to move away from old allies in favor of new ones—can sometimes be the smartest move.  Recently, several members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and American Council for Clean Coal Electricity have withdrawn from those organizations, citing disagreements over climate change science, policy objectives and tactics.  These companies made their decisions after careful deliberation, focusing their message on job creation and innovation. 

Stopping the Greenwash Cycle
Arguably, there was a time when companies could plaster the word “green” on their products, put a tree in their logo and – sort of – be considered environmentally responsible.  That moment, if it was ever real, has passed.  Thanks to an outpouring of greenwashing—illegitimate claims of enviro-friendliness—reporters, advocates and policy makers are understandably wary of “clean” claims.  To be taken seriously, those claims must be serious, backed by hard evidence and validated by credible voices. 

That may be less of a challenge for new innovations on technologies that are widely accepted as clean.  But for some products – like advanced biofuels or fuel cells, for instance – the “clean-ness” of their products may not be as obvious.
Breaking those walls down requires clarity on several factors:

•    The unique selling point.  There’s clean, and then there’s uniquely clean.  Being seen as the latter means using real numbers and compelling examples to demonstrate lower fuel consumption or CO2 emissions; the reduced environmental impact of a supply chain; or the connection to a key piece of the policy puzzle, like making carbon offsets more verifiable or enabling a smart grid. 
•    The relationship to another clean technology or policy.  Is this a new spin on a clean tech we all know and love?  Does this deliver results more cost-effectively than a widely accepted technology like solar?  Is it the bridge from a dirty present to a cleaner future?  Establishing those connections helps establish familiarity and credibility, especially for policy makers looking to highlight a company or product in the context of their pet legislation.
•    The real commitment.  Highlighting a clean product or practice while maintaining a dirty way of doing business is the essence of greenwashing— and even the most well funded PR campaign can’t hide that.  Leaders in this space make a commitment to clean and green practices that extends beyond a single product, and they stick to showing progress on that commitment over time.  That’s the path not just to credibility, but also to industry leadership. 

To be clear, this isn’t a game plan that any company or technology can follow.  Some products and practices simply aren’t clean.  For companies with a real contribution to make, helping the right audiences see the clean through the greenwash is absolutely the price of admission.

Everything You Ever Wanted from Policy… But Were Afraid to Request
When the federal government launches grants to support clean energy, there’s no shame in making the strongest case possible for access to those funds.  The situation is slightly different when broader policy changes are on the line, especially those that alter market conditions or support some industries more than others.

This conundrum faces companies hoping to influence energy policy in their favor.  For many such firms, the urge to appeal to policy makers is tempered by the need to look strong to stockholders, customers and financers.  Companies then find themselves stuck between the need to emphasize their business model’s viability and the need for government assistance to push them toward that goal. 

This balancing act is a tricky one, but is most effectively handled when a company or organization can position itself as leading the way toward what could be.  Policy makers, advocacy groups and even reporters want to embrace the future.  Companies looking to play smart in this environment should emphasize how a policy will increase new hires and investment, lower prices or improve American competitiveness against overseas companies.  They should also show how products or the industry are already yielding results – and how the right policies will amplify and extend those results to media markets and Congressional districts across the country.
One powerful example of this strategy is being pursued by the U.S. wind energy industry, which supports passage of a strong, near-term national Renewable Electricity Standard.   From 2006 to 2008, the industry saw huge growth in manufacturing orders, job creation and megawatts installed.  But that demand has fallen with the economic downturn, and rapid policy change in China and the EU threaten to move the wind industry permanently overseas.  Wind energy installers, suppliers and trade groups have seized the moment to point out that previous years’ remarkable growth can return and create jobs across the U.S. – but only if policy conditions are right.  They have the economics on their side; jobs go where the markets are and policies drive markets. 

Of course, as policy debates and economic circumstances shift, messages and tactics must follow suit.  But adhering to this basic model can help ensure that government action is seen as a catalyst, rather than a crutch, allowing companies to shape the direction of policy shifts and achieve their goals without alarming investors.

A Policy of Continued Engagement
Current prospects for climate and energy legislation are uncertain, as much work remains to be done.  While this puts our environment in a precarious position, it also means that the debate is far from over.  The key is to weigh in at the right time with the right messages, knowing that friends and opponents alike will recognize a false start or a thin reed. 

This article is excerpted from PR News' Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility & Green PR, Volume 3. It was written by Jason Miner and Ryan Cunningham lwho ead the energy and sustainability practice at the Glover Park Group in Washington, DC.  To find out how to order the guidebook, go to www.prnewsonline.com/store.